Milan Vohra, India’s first Mills & Boon author, has always believed in doing what she loves: whether it is dancing (despite two left feet), singing sad old songs, off-beat and impulsive travel or creating ads, a day job that she loves, despite its insane deadlines and stress. “I love the pure space of being in a briefing, challenging it, cracking an idea, spending the endless hours to give it shape, the high of presenting it. I’m pretty demanding of myself and everyone who works with me,” she says.
Somewhere, somehow, between all that, she has managed to write multiple books and is currently working on two more. One, a work of non-fiction, is currently in the research and ideation stage. “Soon, I should have enough material for the writing to begin,” she says. The other is a narrative non-fiction project about a significant period in her life. “The writing for it is happening piecemeal,” she says. “I’m usually a big plotter when I write fiction, but with this book particularly, I’m letting the book dictate how and when it gets written.
In an interview with Lounge, she talks about the space where all the magic happens. Edited excerpts.
Describe your current workplace to us.
This is going to sound excessive, but I use three tables and an open bookshelf to create my writing and working space. It's like a room within a room. Two of these tables are joined in an L formation.
The narrower of these is where I keep my laptops. I am still working in advertising and writing ad campaigns, and my work laptop is separate from my personal laptop. I lost a manuscript that I had been working on my work laptop last year and learnt a lesson from that. The longer, broader table is where I need the space to be completely clutter-free. I like to write with a pen on paper in an unrestrained space where sheets of paper can spread out all over the desk.
The third desk is a foldable one that closes up and cleverly sits behind my chair like a tall console table. It doubles up as storage for any reference books I need for the work in progress. Another open bookshelf beside this desk has my diaries with notes on books that I may someday write. I keep adding to the characters; I plan and sort through the plots in any of these books. Each diary gets more detailed over time. I like to believe that someday some of these will make absolute sense to me, and that's when they'll get written in a feverish frenzy.
My room is a large one, notionally divided into three zones. The sleeping area has a mural painted at one end, leading to a balcony, and this part of the room is associated only with sleep or morning tea.
The centre of the room has an old single-seater Chesterfield that I love to curl up on to read, go through notepads with my notes on a plot or characters or watch tv (less and less these days). It's my leisure or 'processing stuff' zone.
And then there's the workspace or writing space, my room within the room. It has a lot of framed photos and colourful pieces that I feel happy to look at.
There's also a vibrant painting by Dhiraj Chowdhary behind my desk. I've never been able to make the mental switch to writing on a laptop. So for me, writing has always got to be seated at a table, feet up on a footstool, a yellow light hanging over the desk - that's neither too bright nor too low, lots of paper, smooth flowing gel pens and a large physical bin close at hand.
Has it always been this way? Or has it evolved over the years?
Earlier I had enclosed a balcony to convert it into a separate study room for myself, but somehow it felt cold and cut off from the rest of the house (which could have been so in its favour but wasn't). In summer, it felt too hot; in winter, it was never cosy enough. I'd move back into the heart of the house, even push aside things at the dining table to then write there at night. But then I'd always be trying to keep papers away and worry about misplacing entire portions. Now with my room within the room, all my work in progress goes into the shelf behind me; the numerous diaries stacked there have the ideas I put down, one diary to one future book. Only whatever I'm currently working on gets to stay on the table. Everything else must be cleared away, including my work in advertising.
How would you define your daily relationship with this space?
I'm possessive about it. I respect it. I detest it. I'm safe within it. I'm in the lion's den within it. I realise it's got an energy of its own. It seems to keep growing, evolving, and I'm existing within whatever this space keeps shifting to and becoming. Because I use this space also to write my advertising campaigns and take work calls, I have to constantly switch between laptops and keep sweeping away things from one table to another. I often get impatient with all of it and do some heavy-duty shifting to see if a different desk position helps break through a creative block—any writing, not just fiction but even ad campaigns, has to be on a completely bare table. The laptop comes out only once I need to dictate what I've written. So while I have deep love and gratitude for all that I get done out of this space, I constantly fantasise about being able just casually to write out of anywhere!
I often carry paper and a gazillion pens (you can never carry too few) to my favourite café in the hope I’ll write there, but I end up eavesdropping and people-watching but never accomplish any writing – except at my desk. I envy writers who can curl up anywhere with a laptop and write.
Tell us about some of the eureka moments you have had and significant works that you have done from here.
Almost all my published work has been written at this desk. I just keep shifting furniture around when I’m settling into a new book...till it feels right. The direction the desk will face, the grouping of things around it. It’s a little like the nesting instinct mothers-to-be are known to have. My son, who would often do the heavy pushing of furniture around for me, used to protest in the initial years. Later, I’d see him get restless when he had papers to submit and do similar stuff in his room, a little too often, and I was the one protesting! Our Song, Head Over heels, Mates, Dates and Double Takes and most of my recent short stories, The Call, Catch of the Day, What I hate Most, have all been written at this table. Short of plonking it outside the apartment, this desk has, over many years in this apartment, seen it from every angle and direction. I've also written a very fun, animated ad campaign, which will eventually be a series for a brand called Endwarts, which has just begun to be aired across Europe. I recently worked on a big ad campaign for one of the world's most iconic brands – Viagra. Oh, this desk has certainly seen a lot of action! Tick-tock, We're 30, which was acquired pre-pandemic, and I hope will see the light of day soon, was also written at this desk.
If you were to trade this space for another, what would it be?
As a kid, I dreamt of one day having a circular room lined with wall to wall bookshelves, with just one desk and a bean bag in the room.
But now I wonder if I wouldn't be too distracted by that kind of stimulus. Maybe I need something that's the exact opposite of what I currently have. Maybe a very spartan white room, with one single big white table and discreet, almost invisible storage. I'd still need lots of paper and free-flowing gel pens. Ok, maybe also a spot of colour. One big spot of colour.
What is the one thing that has been at your workplace over the years? Why?
Two things, actually. One, a little silver owl that was the very first creative award I won. It's a creative excellence award that was given at HTA (Hindustan Thompson Associates before it became JWT before it became WPP etc.) and was a pretty valued thing within the company, so full of many brilliant creative people. I won it for an ad film I wrote when I was a young copywriter. It's precious because it came accompanied by a little note from my mentor Ivan Arthur who was the national creative head. It inspired me to keep wanting to aim to do good work and has sat beside my desk since 1990.
The second is the hanging yellow light over my desk. My father had taken me to shop for it before I left for Bangalore in 1999. I was clear about every detail in each room that was yet to be created in my future Bangalore house. I can get into mind-boggling details of colour, shapes, and palettes. I was taking forever to find just the right kind of overhead light; I knew I wanted it in yellow. I remember how extraordinarily patient my father had been, waiting as we went shop to shop till I found just what I wanted. It casts a warm yellow light and gives me a good vibe when I sit down to write.
Creative Corner is a series about writers, artists, musicians, founders and other creative individuals and their relationships with their workspaces